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Embodiment and Realization: The Many Film-Bodies of Doris Wishman

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 3, July 1997
pp. 64-90 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0008

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Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 64-90

Figures

I truly believe that I am the world's biggest worrier. To an extent that is really not normal. At the age of 5 and 6... I was always concerned about my brothers and sisters. If it was raining I worried that they were not wearing boots and raincoats. If it was cold, were they wearing warm clothing. If it was warm, were they comfortable. Were they hungry. Worry, worry, worry. And so I decided, at an early age, that I would not have children of my own. Any children I had would have to be miserable. I no doubt would have dressed them until they were fifty years old. I never would have let them out of my sight. As for being with friends, only if I went along. And getting married, don't be ridiculous. How could they possibly get along without me. SO -- NO CHILDREN FOR ME. I know I made the right decision.

--Doris Wishman

One of the most fertile grounds for analyzing "counter-cinematic" tendencies in American popular cinema -- beyond the work of a culturally isolated and oftentimes elitist avant-garde -- can be found within the domain of the "exploitation" film phenomenon of the sixties and seventies. Within this tangled network of recyclable film techniques, spectacles of excess, marketing come-ons and "trash" culture aesthetics can also be found a volatile blend of refusal, fragmentation, and reconfiguration of the "classical" spectatorial experience of the cold war period. Long before the recent spate of "independent" film production, the independents of the sixties and seventies were a pioneering breed who experimented as much with spectatorial situations as with stylistic effects and whose efforts oftentimes laid the ground for shifts which mainstream filmmaking entities were hesitant to take on their own.

While exploitation film in general is an area which still requires a more sustained and comprehensive analysis, this article will focus specifically on the work of one filmmaker whose virtually unacknowledged body of work circulated within the pre-hardcore pornographic milieu known as "sexploitation." Working within such sexploitation sub-genres as the long-forgotten "nudist camp" film, the black and white "roughies" of the mid-sixties, and the "soft-core" porn genre of the late-sixties and early-seventies, Doris Wishman wrote, produced, and directed twenty-four feature films in an eighteen year period, becoming the most prolific woman filmmaker of the sound era while creating a cinema of her own in the process.

This essay will offer a basic outline of Doris Wishman's career, organizing her work around three major themes -- the "nudist romance," the "sex-melodrama," and a "cinema of somatic betrayal." These themes conform roughly to the three major "genres" within which Wishman worked between 1960 and 1978. Beyond this contextualization, however, this essay will also propose that Wishman's work can be distinguished from the work of other "sexploitation" filmmakers -- and unified in its own right -- by the persistence of two inclinations within the films themselves. First, I will argue that Wishman's work testifies time and again to the filmmaker's desire to merge with her medium in a union of the body as object and the body as representation. Arising from concerns about the status of her own body as a cultural object, Wishman attempts to "embody" herself within her own films through the use of a variety of narrative and stylistic techniques. Corresponding to this desire, I will also argue that Wishman's cinema is invested in an aesthetic of "realization" which subverts conventional practices of fetishization and objectification, particularly within those images referred to as "pornography." As a form of proto-pornographic artwork, Wishman's cinema points toward new practices of sexual self-fashioning.

The Nudist Romance

Speaking today, Doris Wishman claims to have had no particular early vocation for filmmaking. The youngest child of a middle-class immigrant family, she insists she wanted to be a stage actress, a dream which she pursued to a limited extent before beginning to work as a secretary and saleswoman in the independent film distribution business of the early-fifties. When Wishman's husband died unexpectedly in 1959, however, the director claims to...


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